Thursday, October 31, 2019

Things I will (not) miss while in the US

In two short weeks, I'm heading out for my first home assignment with World Team. I've had many other trips to the US since first arriving in Cambodia over ten years ago, but they've never had quite the formality of a "home assignment," and at 3 months long, this trip is the longest ever except when I moved back stateside for grad school.

Whenever I'm in the US, someone asks, "Do you miss Cambodia?" The answer is usually simple: No, I don't. I would miss it if I knew I were never coming back... I eventually miss certain aspects... but usually my times in the US are short enough and seldom enough that I'm too busy soaking up all the things (and people!) I've missed about America.

On this trip, I'm actually expecting to miss several things about Cambodia, such as...

Blissful ignorance of politics. There are plenty of shenanigans around here (try googling "Cambodia news") but little encouragement for anyone to discuss or critique them. I basically never see any news here unless I go online and seek it out, which is embarrassingly rare. It's harder to hide in America. I'm a big fan of democracy and free speech, but they sure are messy. The primaries were not a "primary" reason for my trip timing.

The simplicity and focus of Christmas. Churches here have a big joyous celebration and outreach, and malls play some carols and too many renditions of "Last Christmas." Some kids wear Santa hats to school on the 25th, but it's a pretty normal day. I know almost no Khmer who exchange presents, though some kids receive shoe boxes via Operation Christmas Child. I'm so excited for family togetherness and way too many cookies and a real tree and the other Christmas traditions I've missed, but in Cambodia, missing those things always takes me back to Jesus.

The weather. Don't get me wrong, I'm delighted to catch a bit of fall and winter... I love having four seasons and a break from sweating. But yesterday it got down to 80, and I started shivering. My system is in for a shock in PA. Cambodia's nicest (coolest) weather comes in December and January, and by my return in mid-February the temps will probably be climbing again into the inferno that is March through May. I wouldn't mind some "happy medium" days.

The longer I live here in Cambo, the more items drift from "major irritation" to "barely noticeable." The barking dogs on my street, the constantly wet bathroom floor, the smell of fish and meat at the market, the flow of traffic... they rarely feel stressful anymore. There's a lot that I enjoy about Cambodian culture. I'm in a decent place emotionally, relatively well-rested, not planning to collapse onto the plane in a puddle of tears like I have after some school years. However, as my teammates Jeannie and Pat put it, knowing I'm about to leave always makes me feel a bit "crispy," over-toasted by Cambodia's constant sensory input. It sparks my internal tally of reasons I want a break from here.

Here are a few things I can guarantee I will NOT miss:

Mosquitoes. Need I say more?

Drunk karaoke wafting through my window. PSA: Alcohol may improve your confidence, but not your vocal abilities. And though maxing out the amp volume may distract your friends from noticing your voice quality, it will achieve no such miracles for the neighbors in a four-block vicinity. Many Cambodians have lovely voices. But they are not the only ones who belt out ballads when I'm trying to work or sleep. Or blog. (Creepy... it's like I summoned them by writing this paragraph!)

Fumes and rays. Some days, driving my moto around town feels like skin cancer and lung cancer are competing to see which can take me out first. (Assuming other drivers don't.) Sunscreen, long sleeves, a stylish purple air mask, and my helmet's tinted visor can't defeat the black clouds of hot exhaust billowing at me from the truck in front of me at the red light, or the blinding sun that reflects off the concrete roads and buildings to hit me every which way at once. I'm looking forward to a few months of errands that don't leave me dusty, sweaty, red-faced, and holding my breath.

Look what one year of driving, not even daily, has done to the sleeves. 

Mockery. Recently I went for a massage. I was a paying customer; her job was literally to make me happy. But after asking my age and marital status, she snickered at my reply the way I would snicker if someone asked me to sign a petition to save the endangered unicorns. I wish I could say she was unique. At least she didn't press the conversation like others have. Sometimes this lands in the "totally fine now" category. Sometimes it doesn't.

Monocultural people sometimes think countries are on a spectrum of politeness. Is Cambodia more or less polite than America? The answer is no. Cambodian culture has much higher standards of politeness than American culture in some regards, and much lower in others. Comments and questions about people's marital status, number of children, weight, skin color, and salary are considered harmless here. In fact, to demonstrate in February that they've missed me, I'm sure many of my friends will say things like, "You've gained weight" or "You're paler than before." On the other hand, as mentioned above, they're very tolerant of karaoke singers with mediocre voices. They hardly ever show anger or road rage. And in helping me prepare my recent teacher training seminars, my tutor wouldn't let me address the teachers as plain old "you," even though they were younger than me and had less training. In respect for their title and position, I had to say "lokru nakru" (Mr. Teacher and Ms. Teacher) every time I addressed the group. Definitions of politeness vary widely across cultures, and while I've come a long way in accepting this reality, it's still nice occasionally to be somewhere that the rules feel intuitive.

I'm hopeful that by February, I'll be reinvigorated and ready for these challenges again. None of them are new; none of them are insurmountable; none of them make me want to scream (anymore... most days...). But I'm glad to have a break from them. And I might need to remind myself of them when I'm in Pennsylvania with nosebleeds and blue fingers, surrounded by "Christmas-y" materialism and political vitriol, and haven't seen the sun in days.

Stumped for questions when I visit you? Don't just ask IF I miss Cambodia... ask WHAT I'm missing (or not!) that day.

Monday, September 30, 2019

On maybe losing a home, and finding one

She just wanted to keep her home. As a result, she might lose everything.

In the two years that I've known "Raksmey," I’ve heard a lot about her legal dispute with her brother, a dispute she inherited from her dad when he passed away four years ago. Through multiple court levels and appeals, they’ve tried to establish whether her late father’s estate belongs to her brother exclusively or whether 40% is Raksmey’s, as their dad’s will stated. In the process, they’ve both gone deeply into debt. Now it’s headed to the supreme court for a final decision.

Her brother already has a house, next to the home where Raksmey spent many years with her dad. For most of that time, she and her brother were close and loving. But when the contentions turned nasty, her brother poured concrete in her pipes, padlocked her door, and cut her power lines, forcing her out into a small rented room.

Since then, Raksmey has fought desperately to get her home back, knowing that while the law is on her side, connections and cash determine the winner. Lately, I think she’s continued largely in hopes of selling the house to repay her court debts. (Another Khmer friend has recent experience with loan sharks. Not fun.)

Though a naturally cheerful person, Raksmey has often poured out her latest woes. Her brother’s cruel jibes. Her lawyer’s flaky cancellations. Her apprehensions of losing everything. Sometimes I'm impatient to move onto the main agenda for our meetings, but it’s good Khmer listening practice for me. And despite my task-oriented personality, I want to be there for her. I just don't have much encouragement to offer her apart from Jesus. So when she winds down, sometimes I just nod sympathetically. But often I say, “Wow, that’s really tough. Can I pray for you right now?” or “Your story reminds me of a Bible verse. Let’s read it together.”

She always lets me, and says that she prays on her own too. But she’s never had an answer when I ask, "What is God reminding you of through this difficulty?" Nor have my verses or prayers seemed to help. Despite over a decade of identifying as Christian, she had a falling-out with her church a few years back and has lost touch with other Khmer believers. I encouraged her to read the Bible, on her phone if needed, but she always said her Bible was locked into her dad’s house with all her other possessions, and that was the only Bible she wanted to read. 

On the rare occasions that she brought up God, she’d express things like “God helped me forgive my brother” or “God wants me to avoid temptation”: duty, not comfort in knowing Christ. Trying to be strong alone, she was slipping into bitterness and cynicism. She didn’t just need financial security – she needed inner peace and restored relationships. Though amazed at her tenacity, I couldn’t imagine how she was enduring all this stress while disconnected from God’s love for her. I wanted her to know the power of God’s promises and God’s family to support her. I knew I wasn't the only foreigner listening to and praying for her, but it felt fruitless and gloomy.

Two weeks ago, Raksmey took nearly an hour to fill me in. She told me how deeply her brother has wounded her heart over the years and how much I've meant to her as a supportive listener. She’s painfully aware that the upcoming decision could ruin her life on multiple levels. Before, there was always a ray of hope: another appeal, another lawyer, another high-up acquaintance who could maybe be persuaded to advocate for her. Soon, there will be nothing more to do. Vulnerability oozed from her words. What could I say to her that I hadn’t already said? 

I read Philippians 4:19 to her: “My God will provide all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” And I prayed, “Lord, You were there with Joseph when his brothers enslaved him, when he lost everything, when he went to prison. You never abandoned him, but You used his suffering to save many lives during the famine. Please be with Raksmey and use her suffering too. Provide all her needs according to Your wisdom. What her brother intends for evil, please use for good, just like you did with Joseph. You're more powerful than her brother, or the judge, or anyone on earth.” (Well, that's what I tried to say, only in Khmer so I sounded like a 5-year-old.)

The verse left her unmoved, and there was nothing new in my prayer. I was ready to call it a day, since our time was up. But after the amen, she looked at me. “Thank you so much, Chelsea. You really encouraged me just now. Joseph’s brothers tried to kill him – they were even worse than my brother – but God stuck with him. God’s the good dad who kept loving His runaway child and welcomed that child back home. I need God in my life. Your prayer reminded me of this worship song I used to love…” 

Wait, what? Am I hearing her right? I showed her Genesis 50:20, where Joseph says God used his brothers' evil intentions for good, and messaged both verses to her phone so she could re-read them later. When she mentioned wanting to start reading the Bible again, I asked her, “If I buy you a Bible, will you read it?” 


I left that meeting very encouraged, but still a bit skeptical if it indicated real change. Would she stay spiritually open, or was she just extra emotional that day? Was she just trying to get God on her side to win the court case, or would she trust Him regardless? Would she really read a Bible if I bought one for her? 

I apologized when I met her last week. “I didn’t make it to the Christian bookstore this week, but I'll get you a Bible soon if you’d like.” 

“Sure, but no hurry. I started reading the Bible on my phone. Your prayer the other day has encouraged me so much. I know I need God's Word.” 

Whoa. She's already reading on her own, after all that insisting she didn't like online Bibles? I'd been thinking if I bought her one, maybe she'd read it just feeling she owed it to me. I'd never expected this!

Today, Raksmey was delighted to see her new Bible. She gave me permission to share her story, and reiterated with a broad smile how thankful she is to have "woken up" two weeks ago to God's presence. She'd long felt lost in fear and despair, but now she feels peaceful and ready for any outcome in court. She's been reflecting on Joseph's endurance through twenty years of hardship before ending up a powerful leader, restored to his family. Likewise, she knows she can trust God and receive His strength for whatever's ahead. She can see His goodness in people who pray for and encourage her.

I told her what I've been mulling over. Like Joseph, Raksmey has lost her home, her father, even her relationship with her brother. And her losses might continue to mount, as his did. But in Christ, she can receive a home, a Father, and a spiritual family far better and more permanent than any other. None of her suffering will be wasted; all of it will be part of a bigger story. Whatever happens to her dad's estate in court, Raksmey has a guaranteed and glorious inheritance.

Monday, August 26, 2019

The worm, the crow, and the challenges of cross-cultural storytelling

Pop quiz: 

Match the sentences to the genre in which you might find them.

1. And they all lived happily ever after.
2. Press 1 for English and 2 for Spanish.
3. She has demonstrated superior critical thinking, organization, and attention to detail.
4. So good to see you again! You look great!
5. "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." 

a. Greeting a visiting friend 
b. Phone recording for a government service
c. Opening line of a dystopian novel (William Gibson's Neuromancer)
d. College recommendation letter
e. Fairy tale closing

Not too hard, was it? In case you need help, answers are at the bottom. But these lines would sound pretty odd if you shuffled them around between those five contexts.

A recent language coaching class encouraged us to help our advanced learners notice discourse. Discourse means the structure or shape of a text or conversation. What kinds of phrases and sentences are used to open, develop, and close it? What markers indicate its genre? A court testimony and a fairy tale are both narratives, but you wouldn't start a court testimony with "Once upon a time." 

Languages can have diverse expectations for what makes each genre sound "right" and natural. If I assume my second language has the same discourse patterns as my first, what can happen? 
  • I might miss cues that someone is trying to end a conversation, or feel unsure how to do so myself. (Hanging up the phone with a Khmer speaker used to be so awkward for me!)
  • I might persuade in a way that doesn't sound persuasive. (I read that Japanese students are taught to sound hesitant and acknowledge other viewpoints to reflect their humility in a large and complicated world. By contrast, American essay writers are taught to say "My viewpoint IS the truth." This divergence can cause confusion and discomfort in ESL writing courses.) 
  • I might communicate information that I see as organized and clear, but my audience finds difficult to follow or process.
Image from ThoughtCo
As with several other coaching suggestions, I knew I needed to grow here in my own language learning, so I decided to give it a try. One area where I'd like to grow is in storytelling. What makes people want to listen? So I chose a Buddhist folk tale in Khmer​, one that I'd once watched in class, and instead of just reading it for comprehension, I picked it apart, trying to understand every word. Then I examined how the words combined into sentences, paragraphs, and story. 

My analysis had three stages: 
1. Very literal translation
2. Somewhat literal translation
3. Non-literal translation

That way, I could compare the Khmer structure to a comparable English structure for folk tales. It was sometimes hard to find 1-to-1 correspondences of English and Khmer words, and even the most literal translation still loses shades of meaning in Khmer. But these three stages will give you an indication of potential differences between stories in the two languages. (You probably don't want to read all of the very literal translation, so I'm just including the beginning to give you an idea.)

1. Very literal translation:

Story Worm and Crow

Even this version still adds capitalizations and spaces between words, neither of which exist in the original Khmer except where I’ve used the Tab function below. Khmer spaces are wider than English ones and work more like commas - I'm still not sure why this story uses commas in some places instead of spaces in the original text.

Have story one say     worm eating leaf      have crow one fly seek food go to notice with worm that. Crow say “Time this have luck get worm eat” and fly go near worm. Worm look see crow also realize say “Self, (impolite) crow this heart brutal      will stab me eat now already.” Worm ask crow say “Come seek what?”. Crow tell go to worm back say “I come eat worm you.” Worm say “When only crow you seek riddle me find then eat me can, if seek riddle me not find eat me not can not.” Crow ask that “Riddle worm you way like what ask come descend I will seek give find.” Worm ask go to crow like have continue go to this:
1 - Like what which they call say sweet more than they most?
2 -  Like what which they call say sour bitter/unripe more than they most?
3 - Like what which they call say stinky more than they most?
4 - Like what which they call say fragrant more than they most?

Whew, does your brain hurt yet? OK, let's look at the intermediate version, where I tried to use correct grammar but stay as possible to the Khmer discourse structure.

Somewhat literal, yet grammatical, translation: 

“The Story of Worm and Crow”

I put in paragraph breaks, quotation marks, question marks, and periods only where they exist in Khmer. I changed verb tenses where appropriate and added some of the following to make it flow better:
  • commas and semicolons
  • articles [a/an/the] 
  • subjects for verbs
  • conjunctions like “and” & “but” 
I've marked these additions in red in the first paragraph and left the spaces in to give you an idea. 

There is one tale saying     
a worm was eating a leaf     one crow flew looking for food; it went and spotted with that worm. The crow said, “This time have luck and get the worm to eat” and flew near the worm. The worm looked, saw the crow and recalled saying, “This stupid brutal-hearted crow      will stab me to eat now already.” The worm asked the crow saying, “What do you come seeking?”. The crow told to the worm back saying, “I came to eat the worm, you.” The worm said, “Only when, Crow, you seek my riddle and find it, then you can eat me; if you seek my riddle and do not find ityou can’t eat me.”

The crow asked saying, “What’s your riddle, worm, go ahead and ask me and I’ll figure it out.” The worm asked the crow the following:

1.    How do they call that which is sweet more than anything, most of all?
2.    How do they call that which is sour more than anything, most of all?
3.    How do they call that which is stinky more than anything, most of all?
4.    How do they call that which is fragrant more than anything, most of all?

When the crow had heard the worm ask all four riddles already, he had the most joy and shouted excitedly and playfully, thinking saying, “All four of the worm’s four riddles, I sought and found and can eat this worm without missing out,” so the crow answered and solved the riddle in the following way.

1.    That which they call sweet most of all, that is sugar and honey, sweeter than anything.
2.    That which they call sour most of all, that is sour lime soup, tamarind, sandan fruit soup, and vinegar.
3.    That which they call stinky most of all, that is poop and all types of animal carcasses.
4.    That which they call fragrant most of all, that is magnolia, jasmine, and perfume.
5.    Crow has solved all four of these riddles, he told the worm.

The worm said “Crow has solved the riddles incorrectly.” So Crow looked gloomy saying back to the worm, “Worm, if you say it’s wrong, please tell me these riddles’ answers so I’ll know.” The worm replied to the crow saying “I can tell you, but crow, don’t eat me once I tell you.” The crow said “Just go ahead and tell me, I won’t eat you.” Once they had agreed together in this way, the worm solved the riddles and told them to the crow, like the following words:
  1. That which they call sweet most of all, that is not really sugar or honey sweet, but sweet words spoken back and forth with each other through melodious, faithful words toward each other. This is what is called the sweetest.
  2. That which they call sour and bitter most of all, that is not really sour and bitter tamarind, sandan fruit soup, lime soup, or vinegar, but vulgar, cruel, impolite, inappropriate words spoken back and forth with each other. This is what is called sour and bitter beyond all else.
  3. That which they call stinky, that is not really stinky poop or a stinky carcass, but a foul reputation and name of an evildoer. This is exactly what is called “putrid even upwind.”
  4. That which they call fragrant, that is not really the fragrant scent of a flower or perfume, but a fragrant reputation and name of an innocent person doing good, this is exactly what is called “fragrant more than any fragrant spice.”

The crow, having listened to all these riddles, then stopped eating the worm and went.

Small but really true, like a sparkling diamond.

It's a lot more understandable than the first story. But would you buy a book of stories like this to read with your kids? Me neither.

Finally, since I couldn't find a comparable English version, here's my best shot at fitting it into English discourse patterns for folk tales. Red indicates places where I changed the wording to sound more like an English folk tale:

“The Worm and the Crow”

A worm was once eating a leaf when a crow flew overhead, hunting for food, and spotted the worm. The crow told himself, “I’m in luck: this worm will be an easy target!” and dove toward the worm. 

Looking up, the worm spotted the crow and realized, “This rotten brutal-hearted crow is about to gobble me up!” So she asked the crow, “What do you want?” 

The crow replied, “I’m here to claim you as my dinner!” 

The worm said, “OK, fine, you can eat me… but only after you solve my riddles.”

“Go ahead, what are they? I know I’ll get them right,” the crow responded cockily.

So she proceeded to ask the crow: 

1.    "What’s the sweetest thing in the world?
2.    What’s the sourest, most bitter thing in the world?
3.    What’s the stinkiest thing in the world?
4.    What’s the most fragrant thing in the world?"

Hearing these riddles, the crow let out a gleeful caw. He thought to himself, “These are easy. This worm is mine for sure!” He told the worm:

1.    "The sweetest things in the world are sugar and honey.
2.    The sourest, most bitter things in the world are sour lime soup, tamarind, sour fruit soup, and vinegar.
3.    The stinkiest things in the world are poop and all animal carcasses.
4.    The most fragrant things in the world are magnolias, jasmine flowers, and perfume.
5.    I’ve solved all four of your riddles!”

“Not so fast!” she replied. “Your answers are wrong.”

The crow looked crestfallen. “Wrong, you say? Then please tell me the right answers so I’ll know.”

“I’ll tell you, but you can’t eat me afterward,” said the brave little worm.

The crow answered, “As long as you tell me, I won’t eat you.”

Satisfied by their agreement, the worm revealed the riddles’ solutions:

1.    "The sweetest thing in the world isn’t sugar or honey, but a sweet conversation filled with musical, faithful words. That’s what’s really the sweetest.
2.    The sourest, most bitter thing in the world isn’t a food like tamarind, sour fruit, lime, or vinegar, but a conversation full of vulgar, cruel, impolite, and unseemly words. That’s the sourest, most bitter thing of all.
3.    The stinkiest thing in the world isn’t poop or carcasses, but an evildoer’s foul reputation and name. That’s what you call 'so putrid you can smell it upwind.'
4.    The most fragrant thing in the world isn’t the scent of a flower or a perfume. It’s the sweet-smelling reputation and name of an upstanding citizen, 'more fragrant than any spice.'”

With this wisdom ringing in his ears, the crow left the worm alone and flew off.

This story is short but profound, like a sparkling diamond.

Here are some differences I noticed:

  • In some places, the Khmer was much shorter than the English; in other places, much longer. We have different conventions for what needs to be spelled out and what can be inferred. 
  • In Khmer, people prefer to restate the nouns often because pronouns get really confusing. Even pronouns like "you" often had the animal's name in front of it. 
  • Sometimes Khmer and English differ on where subjects are required for verbs. 
    • Here English but not Khmer requires a subject: "This time have luck" vs. "This time have luck/I'm in luck" 
    • Here Khmer requires a subject: "When the crow had heard the worm ask all four riddles already, he had the most joy and shouted excitedly and playfully." vs. "Hearing these riddles, the crow cried out with delight."
  • I spotted differences in how Khmer uses punctuation: no exclamation points in the original (I added six), fewer mid-sentence pauses (whether commas or spaces), some surprises with question marks. 
  • Khmer often adds the word "say" after verbs that imply it, like "reply" or "ask." 
  • There were specific phrases to begin the story and to ask and answer about superlatives, "the ___est thing," which never used "in the world" like English might. Likewise, there was a specific phrase signalling "in the following way," which often could be left out in the English translation, but which I've heard in other Khmer stories. 
  • This story had less action than I anticipated. I thought the crow would try to get out of the deal and eat the worm anyway. But my tutor said she was surprised too, and the video included a scene with him lunging and her scurrying underground, so maybe that's not a broader pattern.
  • There's no moral at the end, just a statement praising the story's value. The worm says the morals out loud during the story. These morals definitely reflects Khmer values of harmonious relationships and preserving one's reputation. English folk tales often have just one moral.
  • The moral part has a satisfying parallelism with the opposites of sour/sweet and stinky/fragrant. But in English we'd probably have one wrong answer per question, where the crow gives four or five for some of them. 
Understanding the Khmer took some dictionary work and some help from my tutor. But it wasn't really that hard to translate it into English, even English that sounds kinda like a traditional folk tale. Imagine the opposite, though. Could I take a story I know and translate it into Khmer? Getting it to that intermediate stage, grammatical correctness, is a long way from telling a smooth story that would captivate listeners. I hope to ask more people about what lines or phrases in the original Khmer sound great, are mainly used in folk tales, or should be imitated in my own stories. For now, my goal is oral storytelling, which is both easier for me and more useful in my daily life than writing. But still, getting to Story 3 in Khmer takes a lot of familiarity with strong examples of that genre. 

Realizing this gives me more sympathy for international friends whose logic I can't always follow well. It gives me sympathy for myself as I struggle week after week to understand Khmer sermons, or to tell non-boring stories in Khmer. And it gives me a whole lot of respect for bilingual Khmer friends who bridge the gap in understanding and/or translating for non-Khmer speakers. It also motivates me to keep reading and listening. Khmer discourse is different from English discourse, but it's not random, and the variations aren't infinite. There are patterns to it that I can hunt for and grow into over time. And when I do? I'll be a much better communicator... in Khmer, anyway.

Pop quiz answers: 1. e    2. b   3. d    4. a   5. c